Movie Review
Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.
Posted April 16, 2002
Published in The Los Angeles Times
Tuesday, December 4, 2001
By Robert W. Welkos, Times Staff Writer

HOLA's participants include Salvador Cervantes, left, Ulises Sandoval, Douglas Hernandez, Pascual Carrillo and Angelica Hernandez. LAWRENCE K. HO / Los Angeles Times

As the movie opens, 14-year-old Louis Aguilar—a big, quiet kid standing 6 feet and weighing 250 pounds—is climbing aboard a school bus when he is stopped by the driver, Mr. Busby.                                                                                                                                                                                          Holding up a pad and pen, Busby asks the oversized Louis if he can help him maintain a little order on the bus. "Any time you see a kid doing something wrong, any time you see a kid hurting another kid or hurting the bus or hurting me, I want you to write down his or her name. OK?"                                                                                                                                                                                          Uneasy about the request to turn informant, Louis asks, "What's going to happen to the kid on the list?"  

"That's the one we're going to hang," Busby replies.

Thus begins a moral dilemma facing the lead character in "The Bus Stops Here," a short film written by and starring young Aguilar.

The 10-minute film—directed by industry professional Robert Peters, whose short film "Mutual Love Life" won the audience award two years ago at the Slamdance Film Festival—is one of five revealing shorts written by at-risk adolescent boys attending Heart of Los Angeles Youth, or HOLA, a nonprofit, multicultural organization for kids in the rough Rampart district west of downtown L.A.  

In recent years, Rampart has come to symbolize in the public mind an area of the city seething with crime, drugs and street gangs, not to mention the corruption scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department.  

But these are not the stories the kids of HOLA chose to tell when given the chance to write their own movies. Instead, the films focus on the more personal concerns of everyday life, such as love found and lost, whether people should get involved if they see wrongdoing, a family in crisis and the comedy in something as seemingly innocuous as eating a burrito on a subway train.                                                                                                                                                                                          Dubbed the HOLA Film Project, the movies include: "The Test." This 12-minute film, written by 16-year-old Ulises Sandoval, concerns the relationship between a mother and son as he studies on his own to excel on the SAT. The film, directed by Edward Ornelas, an editor for the Lifetime cable network series "Any Day Now," was recognized as best U.S. short film at this year's Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.   

"Diego and Miriam." This eight-minute Spanish-language film, written by a then-16-year-old Jesse Anguiano, is set at L.A.'s Belmont High School and tells the story of a boy who discovers the pitfalls of love when he falls head over heels for a girl in his class, only to discover she considers him just a friend. The bespectacled Anguiano also stars in the film, which was directed by Eduardo Rodriguez, an actor making his directorial debut.                                                                                                                                                                                         "Pascual." This documentary, written by 16-year-old Pascual Carrillo, gives an insider's look at his life in the Rampart district: living in a one-bedroom apartment with his parents and siblings, sleeping on the couch, pounding on the bathroom door to prod his sisters to finish up each morning and spending hours away from home at HOLA. The film was directed by David Plane, a documentary filmmaker and past winner of a student Academy Award for "They Call Us Boat People," about Haitian immigrants.  

"The Mystical Burrito." This madcap animated urban tale, written two years ago by then-15-year-old Larry Slack, concerns a teenager named Julio who smuggles a burrito on board the Metro Red Line subway, where food is prohibited. His stomach growling, Julio makes a dash for it after being confronted by a transit cop, who races after him. The film was animated by Nassos Vakalis, a former DreamWorks animator who has started his own animation company.

Since its completion last spring, the HOLA Film Project has received considerable attention. It was featured in July on "Huell Howser Presents," a series that aired on KCET-TV, L.A.'s public television station. The project has also been submitted to the New York International Children's Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival.

The films will be screened this week in Havana at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, where HOLA's founder and executive director, Mitchel M. Moore, has been invited to participate in a seminar called "El Universo Audiovisual del Niņo Latinoamericano" (the Audiovisual Universe of Latin American Children).

The movies might never have been made had it not been for donations of money, talent and filmmaking equipment from Hollywood companies, including Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures, Eastman Kodak, Panavision cameras, De Luxe Color Labs, Media City Sound and other Hollywood facilities. In addition, producers said, former New Line Cinema production President Michael De Luca, who helps run production at DreamWorks, provided a generous cash donation.

"I never imagined we would get the films made ... with all this industry support," said project producer Jeff Van Hanken, an Oklahoma-based filmmaker with ties to Hollywood; he used his movie industry connections to get the project off the ground.

"I think people were intrigued by the idea of this community—these kids—making these films," added HOLA's Moore.

"We have plenty of filmmakers who come by and want to show how seedy the neighborhood is, how hopeless it is and at the end of the day, they make that part of every kid's existence," Moore said. "These kids deal with it on a daily basis. They deal with it walking here from home. But there is so much more to these kids' lives—getting into a good college and making sure their GPAs are up and that they can compete academically."

On a recent afternoon, Moore, Van Hanken and a number of kids involved in the film project got together to discuss their films. The youths included Sandoval, who wrote "The Test"; Carrillo, the screenwriter of "Pascual"; Angelica Hernandez, 16, who appears in "Pascual"; Douglas Hernandez (no relation to Angelica), 17, who was cast in "The Test"; Salvador Cervantes, 16, Wendy DeLeon, 15, and Paul Park, 17, who were in "The Bus Stops Here"; and Kouncil Slack, who supplies one of the voices in "The Mystical Burrito."   

Situated at Wilshire Boulevard and Berendo Street at the rear of an aging architectural gem known as Immanuel Presbyterian Church, HOLA came into existence in 1989 after Moore, then a temporary tenor soloist at the church, noticed children hanging out on the streets in the gang-infested area.                                                                                                                                                                                            What began with only five kids has mushroomed into a program for 850 boys and girls, who come to the center each day after school and on weekends to study art, music, theater and writing and to engage in athletics such as basketball, volleyball and soccer.

"Some come for the sports; some come for the art; some have a group of friends here," Moore said. "They come after school. It's kind of a family-like atmosphere. We take trips together. We have an annual trip to Oregon, a rafting trip, that we've been doing for eight or nine years. It really helps provide a foundation for their future. We also try to prepare the kids that really want to go to college. We try to work with them, connecting with colleges and scholarship programs."  

Van Hanken, who runs a Tulsa production company called Healthy Boy Productions, said the HOLA film project began in fall 1999 when he was conducting a writing workshop at the center. He gave the youths an assignment to write brief screenplays. The only criteria were that the story had to have a beginning, a middle and an end and that it be based on some kind of conflict. Each youth was assisted by an adult mentor. Van Hanken knew that if the scripts were to be made into films, he would need the help of Hollywood professionals, but he never dreamed of the outpouring of industry support he would receive.

He contacted Paramount Pictures, which quickly offered its assistance, and Van Hanken's wife, Annie, secured help from New Line Cinema. Universal soon got involved, providing much of the post-production services. Panavision donated cameras, and Media City Sound in the San Fernando Valley donated post-production sound services. Annie Van Hanken, who started as a volunteer at HOLA, also persuaded Eastman Kodak to donate film.                                                                                                                                                                                               The films were shot over four days in July 2000. In addition to Jeff Van Hanken (writer-director of "Bella! Bella! Bella!") and professional filmmakers Peters, Plane and Ornelas, the crew included cinematographer Jamie Barber ("Gideon's Crossing"), gaffer Dayton Nietert ("Hope Floats") and assistant cameraman Paul Plannette ("Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas").                                                                                                                                                                                        Although adults oversaw the production, the project not only gave the youths a chance to try their writing skills, it also gave many of them their first taste of acting and an up-close view of how movies come together.

"I learned that you've got to show an image," Sandoval said. "Show, not tell. You also have to describe everything. Everything that you write in the story has to be connected somewhere."  

In "The Test," Sandoval sets up a confrontation between a high school boy who dreams of a better life by studying for his SAT and the boy's mother, who has turned bitter and drinks heavily because of a failed marriage.

A key scene occurs when the son arrives home from school and his mom begins to taunt him mercilessly.

"Why do you go to school, huh?" she asks sarcastically. "You're not good for anything."  

"How would you know?" he responds.   

"You don't even care." "You're a loser!" she tells him. The boy escapes to the quiet of his bedroom, but when he emerges later, he finds his mother pouring a bottle of beer over his SAT study guide.  

Sandoval's story does not end on such a down note, however. Sprinkled throughout the film are flashback stills depicting the good times the boy and his mother once shared.  

Sandoval said the experience has made him consider a career in filmmaking, something he might never have considered had it not been for the HOLA film project. He hopes to attend Florida State University.  

For many of the teens, the project was their first experience acting in front of a camera.                                                                                                                                                                                         Angelica Hernandez said she had fun appearing in "Pascual." When asked what it was like when the cameras started rolling, she added with a shy smile: "I just started laughing. It was embarrassing. I'm not used to having a camera in my face."  

The not-so-shy Douglas Hernandez, a veteran of small stage productions, readily admits he long ago was bitten by the acting bug.  

"It was great," he said. "I mean, I've done theater since I was 11, but this was the first time I did film. I found it easier. You could do takes over and over."  

Cervantes, who confides that his dream is not to act but to become a rock star, was asked what he learned as an actor.

"I learned that sometimes you have to be yourself, but then sometimes you have to be someone you're not," he said. "You're also going to have to, like, act the way the script says sometimes."  

There was a time it seemed all the stories coming out of Rampart were negative. But the HOLA Film Project showed there's more to this community than headlines about crime, drugs and gangs.

Take Park, who played a bully who sets up a moral dilemma in "The Bus Stops Here." An accomplished classical pianist, the teenager says his new career goal is to compose music for motion pictures.  

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Columns